I was driving on the highway the other day, about to change lanes. I did a quick glance over at the right-hand mirror and then started to move the wheel.
At the last moment, something in my brain kicked in, and I looked again – really looked this time. That’s when I saw the car alongside me, the one I would have hit had I not checked that second time.
Thoroughly rattled, I tried to figure it out. I’m always careful, and I always check for traffic. So what went wrong this time?
And then it hit me. For the last three weeks, I’d been driving cars that had blind spot monitors. Now I was in one that didn’t. When I glanced at the mirror, I wasn’t looking for a car alongside. Instead, I was looking for that little yellow warning triangle.
Electronic nannies are the latest frontier for automakers, and they’re adding them at an ever-increasing rate. I’ve driven cars that brake if you’re about to smack something, that look ahead in the dark and highlight pedestrians and animals, that conform to the speed of traffic ahead when their cruise control is set, that pull you back if you’re drifting out of your lane, that warn if you’re getting tired, or that beep if you’re dumb enough to be texting at the red light and don’t know that it’s turned green. I’ve even ridden in cars that drive themselves.
It’s all pretty cool stuff from a techno-geek aspect, and there are some I like, such as the cross-traffic alert that warns if someone’s coming when you’re backing out of a spot. (Yes, I know I should park nose-out, but sometimes that just isn’t practical, such as when I’m going to be loading groceries into the trunk.)
But I also worry about becoming dependent on these systems. Will people bother to learn how to park, if their car will do it for them? Will they make sure they’re driving between the lanes, if the car will bring them back otherwise? And in my case, will I always remember to look in the mirror for another car, and not just for that yellow warning light?
This stuff isn’t going to go away, and it’s trickling down from high-end vehicles into more mainstream ones. You can no longer buy a new car that doesn’t have anti-lock brakes or electronic stability control, and lawmakers in the U.S. are debating the wisdom of making backup cameras mandatory.
What no one will put forward, of course, is better mandatory training. All you need to know is enough to pass the driving test. We don’t insist that people know how to pilot two tonnes of steel in traffic, and so we accept that technology will mop up after our mistakes.
The result is that we have complacency, which I learned first-hand when I almost drove into the side of another vehicle. Technology isn’t bad in itself, but when we come to depend on it, it’s a double-edged sword—and one that I came far too close to grabbing at the sharp end, that day.